Today is the anniversary of our beloved Stella’s passing. I wrote this shortly after she died. I have shared it with people who have lost pets and other loved ones. People seem to find it comforting. Please feel free to pass it along.
Today, my grief has mostly morphed to gratitude – but I offer this as a tribute and a touchstone for anyone who is struggling with the realities of mortality in our immortal existence.
“It’s time,” I tell Hugh.”
He rises from the computer and strides to my office, where she lies on the blue carpet. She greets him, delighted to see him. She doesn’t get up, but is bright-eyed alert. She thumps her tail and gives her biggest grin.
Hugh says, “Are you sure?”
I shake my head and shudder because just now, I almost killed our dog.
At night she weakens.
I know and Hugh agrees. Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the day I will carry my sweet gift of a girl to the car and drive her to the vet for the last time. Hugh asks if I will come to bed and I say, “No, I will spend this last night glued to Stella.”
She won’t eat. She can’t hold down water. She can barely walk. But somehow she manages to haul herself up on the couch, leaving just enough room for me to spoon behind her like I always do. I climb in and drape my arm over her chest to clutch her heartbeat. I burrow under a blanket and watch bad television. I wait for sleep and dread morning.
A shudder awakens me. I feel her body tremble. She exhales slowly and her heart stops.
“What is this?”… Not yet.
She inhales deeply. Then her heart flutters, fibrillates like a tiny bird. She exhales and it is over. Her heart stops in my hand.
There is endless silence where my dog used to be.
My Grey’s Anatomy kicks in and I say, “Time of death, 2:27.”
It is over.
What will I do without my North Star?
I can’t remember the exact moment I became completely canine-centric. It was a slow avalanche of excessive love. There was training – show, agility and obedience, brightened by her skill and her stubbornness. There were hand-made dog costumes, first a hot pink poodle skirt, then the Native American Couture.
I stood in the dairy aisle at Vons, memorizing the Land-O-Lakes Butter Woman, so I could recreate the look and impose it on the dogs. That day, there were many serious grown-up things to do, things like writing sermons and comforting the sick. Instead, I sewed Indian fringe on Naugahyde and braided black yarn wigs that the dogs would shred in forty-five seconds.
I made career decisions to suit Stella. I left a lucrative career in medical customer service to enter full-time ministry because leading a church would allow more dog time. This embarrassed me, as I wondered if Martin Luther King or Norman Vincent Peale chose ministries to please their dogs. I knew it was odd, but I also trusted that God catches us, using pure, ridiculous love for bait.
When my church felt awful in the early years, I stayed because of Stella. So when our church began to evolve through shared persistence and goodwill, changing lives and becoming something grateful, real, rowdy, and divine, that was because of Stella too.
Then the life shaped by a bossy dog who trained everyone to do her bidding. She demanded endless tennis ball fetches. Daily, she warned the neighborhood of the savage mailman, sent to pillage her toys. She schemed to sneak her fifty pound, muscular frame onto my lap and place her head on my shoulder.
She insisted on me.
She reveled in my silliness and my sadness. She was my best listener, my most forgiving friend. My messy hair, mascara streaks, disheveled, sagging clothes, my frown-lines, my endless complaining – none of it mattered. She cherished me completely.
What will I do without that love?
I will look for her everywhere and come up missing.
I will sing my daily soundtrack of silly dog songs and realize the songs no longer apply.
I will sing them in a minor key.
I will refuse to listen to Puccini.
I will not eat an almond because Stella is not there to point and drool.
I will build a shrine of worn designer collars, lit by Mexican Jesus and Mary candles.
I will pretend Bartie is Stella, so I can feel her again, and then hate myself when this feeble, degrading attempt doesn’t work.
I will facilitate the Animal Blessing service, collapse by the “In Loving Memory” sign, and frighten the volunteers as I place my hands over my eyes for thirty minutes of unstoppable tears.
I will stagger through infinite “firsts without Stella:” the first hike up Sisar Canyon, the first dinner party, the first beach trip, the first cheese, the first everything because she was everything to me.
I will sigh and ponder the Rainbow Bridge; that tear inducing poem about pets in heaven waiting to be reunited with their earth-bound companions. Maybe she’s playing in heaven with the other dead dogs, kicking the crap out of them. Maybe she’ll be there, poised and waiting for me when I pass over, maybe she’ll greet me and we’ll cross the Rainbow Bridge together. When I die, if there’s no Rainbow Bridge, if she’s not there, I’ll hunt down the liar who wrote that poem and slap him….
Above all, I will cling to a day in May, one month before the onset of Stella’s terrible, fast, un-diagnosable illness, back when things were whole.
Stella and Bartie, with Mali the Cat, proudly worked as a team to bring a live hummingbird into the house.
Through some miracle of grace, guidance and animal control, I caught the bird in my hands.
I held it, captivated by rapid wings beating against my palms. I felt its holy longing to be free. I brought the hummingbird outside by the hibiscus and opened my hands.
I watched it soar upwards like a prayer.
Now I wonder, “Was that a sign?”
Because I remember Stella’s fluttering last heartbeat and how it felt like the hummingbird.
Stella’s heart, held captive by a frail body that could no longer contain the largeness of her love; her heart that strained against captivity and transformed yearning into spaciousness; her heartbeat that flew so swiftly away, into wild grace.
I will look for her in hummingbirds and see each one as a message that she is not gone, but free. And on the days when that doesn’t bring comfort, I will wait it out, I will trust the passage of time. I will go to sleep and pray to dream of Stella, beside me, home, where she belongs.
To view The Stella Movie, Click Here.